Saturday, August 13, 2011

Atheists of the Caribbean: So much we can learn from each other

Facebook ' Caribbean Atheists'
If I had the funding I would make the movie. Yes, ' The Atheists of the Caribbean.' I can tell you they are an awesome group. I was fortunate over the last two years to meet a few of them as I travelled doing research on renewable energy sources in the region.

Standing on their own in most cases, these atheists are like islands of the Caribbean in themselves. Tiny skeptical land masses surrounding by a raging sea of fundamentalism that constantly batters their shorelines. Yet, in spite of their isolation they are making a difference and you can see no small measure of resilience wherever they are. It was an inspiration to meet everyone of these individuals. I met with atheists living in or with  roots in Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica and Belize. All of these atheists are active online and speak on issues related to atheism generally through facebook, Atheist nexus and/or blogs. Their thoughts are well worth reading. To Lori, Derrick, Seon, Carolyn, Elayne, Omar and Mr. A, I thank you for taking the time to meet and chat.

It was always a step into the unknown when I met with these persons at various restaurants, bars or coffee shops. They say you can never judge a book by its cover and you certainly can't judge an atheist by their online persona either. It is a funny thing when you get together with a total stranger where the only thing you know about them and they know about you is that you both disbelieve in the same Gods. Sometimes you sit down thinking that the other person is just going to  start up on some anti religious rant, taking up a thread of an argument that you have read on one of their blogs or atheist  posts.

Of course it never happens like that. You  realise quite early that the one who sits before you is a real person, one that has a family they love, groceries they have to pick up, a car they need to take to the mechanic, or an annoying coworker that grates on their last nerve. Often  in these chats it took a while even for the subject of religion to come up. I suppose that religion has so much indoctrinated us that even atheists sometimes have stereotypes of atheists. What I found though as we explored topics and issues generally, is that there was always a deep connection. We often would meet a second time to follow up on discussions. I always left feeling as though I had known the people I was talking to for years. It is true that atheists only necessarily agree on the one issue, but there are inevitably many other similarities that come to the surface. Generally it's an interest to learn more about the world around you.

It was also a thrill for me because I so rarely get the chance to connect with someone with whom I share a bond with both culturally and ideologically. Hearing,  "Man, belief in God don't make no sense, you need to show me de evidence!" stated emphatically  in various West Indian accents was like music to my ears. With all due respect to my my atheist and secular friends in Canada there is something about the mix of intellectualism and joie de vivre that makes meetings of atheist Caribbean minds unique.

Transitioning through the faiths

However, as much as there are obvious similarities between atheists,  it is the differences that really provide the interest. What fascinated me was the different starting points that brought people to where there were. One thing that I discovered was that quite a few atheists had gone through transitions in their religious beliefs. This is quite different from my story. For me, once I came to the conclusion that my Christian God did not exist I became an atheist and had no urge to explore the validity of other faiths or philosophies, even though I still found interest in reading about them. Not so with others. I heard stories of Nuwaubianism, Yahwism and Buddhism that people went through before they embraced atheism. In some cases it was actually people in another religion or sect that first challenged the traditional Christian doctrine the former believer  was exposed to and that's how they made their first move. 

At times the challenge had come through criticisms of the euro centric nature of Christianity and the whole idea of buying in to the 'white man's' religion. One person explained to me how compelling this argument was to them until  one day they turned  the skepticism on their new religion and realised that there was no more evidence for the black man's religion as their was for that of the colonisers. This to me is instructive, it supports this idea, common  in the Caribbean that everybody MUST believe in something.  When holes are shown in your doctrine it just means that you haven't found the right one yet. The true religion is out there you just have to keep searching. In the Caribbean faith game, 'not playing' is never an option.

An interesting contrast to the going for the  more 'black' religion was given by one person who spoke of how during their youth they started to explore different types of music, art and fashion outside that associated with their black West Indian upbringing. This experimenting with new outside cultures caused them to challenge their religious culture too which led to exploring different philosophies, eventually ending at  atheism. It is amazing how often the road to atheism just starts from a simple decision to step outside one's cultural boundaries.

The advantages that these atheists have had in going through the transitions is that they can now  understand religion from many perspectives. It's also perhaps significant that many of the Caribbean atheists have travelled a bit or even left their homeland entirely. Being able to look at yourself from outside appears to have a huge influence on religious belief.

This is one area where I think the Caribbean atheist may have an advantage over some of their North American counterparts. Most atheists I have met in Canada have just been nominal Christians if that. It's hard for such atheists to wear the shoes of the believer. We in the West Indies seem to have a closet full of old footwear at our disposal.

Two roads to atheism

I suppose because the bible is so often presented in  the Caribbean as the inerrant Word of God, it is the discovery of the atrocities, absurdities and contradictions in this book that put the first chink in the armour of many. One person told me that they were reading a bible story to a child one day and after finishing said, " This is rubbish! I can't believe this anymore!"  For this person  religion became something they wanted to resist and withdraw from and the fact that a parent was a pastor just made them want to turn away even more.  Another person told me that it was science that did it. The mere fact of going to school and learning Biology just lit up something inside. For this person religion never really 'took' and it was easy to see the creation, flood stories and the like as the myths that they were. It does seem to me that this illustrates two distinct roads to atheism. One through acceptance of the scientific method another through identifying the dents in the dogma.

The difficulties in  ' coming out.'

This was perhaps the topic that I spent most time addressing with the atheists in the islands. This is a thousand times more of an issue to those atheists that I know in Canada. There are some in Canada that are apprehensive about declaring themselves, but by and large in this country it is not a big deal. Religion in Canada is something you basically just don't talk about much anyway. Fundamentalists tend to keep their doctrine  and rhetoric behind their church doors. A few people will proudly speak in public of their religion as an important part of their cultural identity, but that's usually as far as it goes. If you enquire about how often they go to their place of worship or what rituals they do, they often look at you in absolute horror and make sure to clarify that they are 'non practising.' So, I have met out of practice, Jews, Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, Hindus,  Buddhists and Muslims. The way a lot of these non practicers talk they seem  embarrassed about faith even though they feel they have to embrace it for the sake of their families and communities.  Declaring atheism in such an environment may make you appear a bit of a traitor to your people but you certainly won't get arguments regarding the rationality of your choice.
The Caribbean is the opposite of course. Your religion is something you wear proudly like the "S" on Superman's chest. I was in Dominica during Holy Week and I swore there was a competition to see who could wear the biggest cross without spraining their neck. In such environments atheism is simply a ridiculous notion. A caller to the 'Thinking Atheist' last weekend said that in his part of the world, if you don't believe in a talking snake you are the one with a mental problem. The Caribbean is very much the same. In fact one person told me people actually thought their atheism was a mental illness and people wondered how they were able to avoid being locked up in a mental institution and could have the cognitive ability to be able to teach mathematics.

Atheists who have put themselves out there in the Caribbean even in small circles have faced quite a bit of opposition. One atheist married to a Christian told me that their spouse was being encouraged to file for a divorce purely on the grounds that their partner was an atheist. It isn't easy being an atheist in general and in the Caribbean the difficulty shoots off the charts. Every one of the atheists that I have talked to in the Caribbean has revealed to me that he or she is the only one in their family(immediate and extended). My situation is the same. I hear people in North America talking about being second generation and third generation atheists. This is a concept completely foreign to us in the Caribbean. And  so in our islands many who are quite active in the atheist forums and blogs have not come out to close family members. There are two that have told me that they simply will not ever tell their mothers, because the heartbreak would be simply too much for either her or them to bear.

There are concerns over job security and future career prospects. I was hearing a story where someone was asked point blank whether they believed in God in the middle of a job interview. I would say there is considerable anxiety about rocking the boat of religion right through the region although there do appear to be some island differences. I was told in Barbados that a bus campaign like the  'There's Probably no God' ones undertaken in the UK, USA and Canada could be effective. In Jamaica I was told, "Absolutely not!" The buses would be vandalised before they even left the station.

There was also one person who had been living in the Caribbean for a relatively short time and while perturbed by the religious indoctrination of the masses and very supportive of regional secular efforts did not want to be seen as the voice from outside trying to tell the locals how they should live.  This atheist prefers to stick to their online blog where I can tell you that they don't pull any punches.

I understand all these points and respect the fear of victimisation that so many people referred to. I think apart from fear there is not the same desire to knock down religious beliefs as I sense from atheists in places like the US. For my part when I look back at religion it is with a tinge of nostalgia rather than deep animosity. In the Caribbean, by and large religion has not caused the suffering as much as in has in some other places. The mega churches and tele evangelists that swindle their way up north are generally less evident in the Caribbean. Memories of  church from my youth are filled with images of picnic excursions, running about at Sunday School, singing lively action songs and church army ladies beating tambourines There are also memories of intense boredom sitting through services, but being boring is not a crime. Most of us have many dear persons in our lives still very devout and  indeed church is where for many of us our social lives revolved in years gone by.  It is where we would look to find girlfriends and boyfriends. I can think of many couples that met in some form or fashion through the church.

In the Caribbean the main interest by atheists I spoke to is to get the questioning started. Trying to create skeptics rather than atheists. And this brings me to the other main point of the discussions. Should we call ourselves atheists?

Atheists or not?

This is a ticklish one and  views certainly varied. I think we all agreed that whatever the strategy we would have to get our views out into the society gradually. One freethinker that I met who had over 40 years as a humanist suggested that it was better to try to stay clear of the term 'atheist' altogether because of the negative connotation and the history associated. " Atheism doesn't really offer anything, people need something to replace their religion with if you are telling them to give it up." The view expressed was to therefore embrace humanism and promote that.

Other people felt that critical thinking was what really mattered and there was no reason to look at challenging religion at all, just let the Christians be, they may be mistaken but we don't need to be constantly trying to take their crutch away. The other view put on the table was that we needed to put atheism out here because it was important to remove the stigma. The idea of atheism has never even entered into the head of most Caribbean people. Just letting people know that not believing in God is not tantamount to selling your soul to the devil would be a huge step.

I agree to an extent with all these arguments, but I must say from a personal standpoint I think identifying as an atheist is very important.   I believe the time has come  to challenge belief and anything less than an outright " I don't believe you" is going to seem like we are telling religious people that we are fine with you just continuing living by faith. Having said that, I am strongly in favour of letting people be where they want to be as atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, humanists, agnostics or whatever. To me, anyone who is in support of  making people think about their beliefs more is my ally.

So, what have I come away with from all of these discussions and interactions? Well, I am thinking that in the Caribbean there is a need for two groups.

1. Critical thinking advocacy group-

 This organisation would be designed to promote general skepticism and critical thinking towards claims both inside and outside of religion. It should also have the general promotion of science as a pillar in its mandate. This group could include atheists and agnostics as well as moderate religious people (yes, believers). I think having a group that contained people of faith and no-faith would take away the fear that our mission is all about taking God out. Yet, it will make it clear that  there are believers out there that respect atheism as a viable position which can emerge from skepticism. Who knows ? There may even be some believers that will be attracted to a group like this and lose their faith as they apply more skepticism in their lives. Whatever the case, beliefs of everyone involved in such a group are likely to become less rigidly held as the process goes along.

2. Atheist support group

This group would be purely for atheists and designed to support people who find themselves isolated and perhaps even depressed after letting go of faith. A society that has more critical thinking ideas in its mainstream is invariably going to lead some people to lose their belief in God. It's important to reassure people that this is OK and there are people to support them on this side if they happen to land on  non belief after they have investigated their faith. This would not be a group in any way seeking to make anyone an atheist. The message would simply be , "If you are an atheist, we are here for you!" I think this would help people a lot. I believe the reason people stop short of atheism is because they don't see any way of landing softly on the other side so they think it's  better to go back to that good 'old time' religion safety net that they know. We have to be standing outside holding our trampoline aloft when they feel they want to jump out of the building that is on fire for Jesus.




These  are just preliminary recommendations, I am still processing it all. I have to add that I have had some great interactions with other Caribbean atheists online who have given their views on the topic as well. I thank you guys too, and look forward to meeting you all one day. I have to make special mention of  Andre a well known musician in Barbados who has recently put his atheism right out there. It's such a pleasure to have someone who I admired through music now working on the same team with me promoting atheism and skepticism.

Well, there it is my exploration of the ' Atheists of the Caribbean.' I enjoyed it and hope that one day I can do a sequel. I am optimistic that this opportunity will come when we organise our meet up . I am very committed to this idea, there is so much we could learn from each other. The Caribbean has  generally speaking not been successful in coming together as one, maybe freethinkers could lead the way. Thinking of having all these people I met in the same room is a very exciting prospect. I think it is something that would change us all and encourage us to keep pushing forward. I invite any Caribbean atheists I haven't met out there yet to make contact with me. I encourage you to join the facebook group Caribbean Atheists and the Atheist Nexus Caribbean group as well. I also invite those of you that are not from the Caribbean but have an interest in our region to join us. We definitely need your support. There are many atheists who have been very encouraging when I have spoken to them about promoting secularism in the Caribbean and I am very grateful for that.

I  just have to mention one more thing about my Caribbean sojourn that will always stand out in my memory. I sat with an atheist who said to me they have never spoken with another atheist face to face before in their life. Hearing that made me sit up in shock, since this person was very active on line, and well informed on secular issues. I realised at that moment how different my atheist experience is, having quite a few like minded people in my community in Canada. I gave the person the "A" pin which I myself had worn on my jacket as I left Canada for the Caribbean just weeks before. I  spoke of that experience in an earlier blogpost. It had sentimental value to me, but I felt this atheist should have it. When I gave it, the  atheist looked at it held it securely and gazed down at it in silence for nearly a minute with a smile as broad as the Caribbean Sea. The next day a photo of that actual pin was their profile picture on facebook. That just made everything seem so worth it.

9 comments:

  1. Good stuff.I enjoyed reading your blog very much. When I am confronted with bible thumping religious fanatics in the Islands,and there are many in the Islands,I always let them express themselves and their beliefs to a point,then I let them down slowly by insisting that they listen to my views on the subject.
    You see, it's got to be a two way street as far as I am concerned. As adults, we've go to be able to cross-communicate,otherwise it's pointless.More critical rational view points has to be factored in and presented into the mix,not just religious rabble-babble holy theistic nonsense,which is what I consider it to be...So your feelings are hurt,so what. My feelings become hurt when I realize that we as black Islanders, still cater to the this disgusting premise that we are inferior to white people because the white man made(slave master's)bible says that we are of the devil's spawn and they(white people)are the Fantasy fairy tale God's children. So,we tend to live down and worship them, while most of them tend to see us as a sub-human specie to be disrespected, marginalized,victimized and denied.

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  2. Ah David! Great stuff here! I especially liked the end. Haha.

    In any case, this is great work and gives great insight into what the scattered few around the region are up to and where we came from. I look forward to seeing more from you on this, as you've already started presenting it so eloquently.

    Also, as I mentioned to you when we met, the meet up is very necessary and we should push to see it through. I will do my best to see it happen.

    One more thing, I plan to share this post, if it is OK with you, with many others, believers and atheist alike, as I feel it is very valuable in our fight for skepticism and rationality in the region.

    Take care and keep on doing the good work!

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  3. Thanks Dr.Mush. I get where you are coming from regarding the lack of communication. In our islands discussion on religion is very much a one way street.It may be my imagination but I think it is getting worse. There is a group in Barbados turning up the fundamentalist rhetoric and their numbers are growing fast. That is why I think it is important that we speak up now more than ever.

    Derk, thanks for your kind comments also. My discussions with you were certainly a highlight of my trip. I appreciate your offer to help with the meet up. I thought you would like the ending lol.

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  4. In TnT, the only popular public atheist I know of is Kevin Baldeosingh. He is an Express columnist. His style is satirical and I must say he's brilliant at it. I fear, though, that his sarcastic humour does more harm than good, because as it stands, he is our only local representative.

    He has started a Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association, but nobody really knows about it. I am hopeful though, because I know have a fair amount of young atheist friends who I am sure will be of some level of importance in the future. The changes will come.

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  5. Good to know that T&T has a humanist organisation. I have read a bit of Kevin and also saw a TED talk with him which was very interesting, I think we need a variety of approaches to have an effective secular movement. I am sure you can make a big difference as well. Let's hope that brighter days for all of us in the region lie ahead.

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  6. Hi, I would not describe myself as an atheist reason being that I've worn the label of "Christian" for so long that I've come to detest labels and the fondness we humans have of segregating each another into groups...so I will stick with "free thinker". Your article is spot on, especially where you highlight the dependency we Caribbean people have on Christianity to the point where "To live is Christ" is our anthem and even the "on- the-fence"/non believer has an intrinsic respect for the bible and its doctrine. I grew up in a Christian household..both parents are pentecostal evangelists, counselors and church leaders who I must admit practice what they preach.
    My journey to free thought began years ago but was reinforced after my faith was challenged while studying engineering at university, and helped me to understand why I could never "speak in tongues" or give myself completely over to the "Holy Spirit", even though I tried to the point of taking up youth leadership positions in church, preaching, fasting etc. The simple reason was because I "thought" too much and "read" too much. Somewhere in my psyche along with all the dominant religious doctrine were questions which were never answered. The "answers" were always; "Pray for guidance" or "Consult the Bible". That was folly because my problem was this "bible" with tales of talking animals, a so-called loving, all powerful god who required undivided attention, grovelling, accolades, blood sacrifices and toyed with people's lives (Abraham, Job etc.) to prove their love for him.
    I also had a problem with my purported "free will" which comes with 2 options: 1) Accept Christ and live a life of complete devotion to him, die/be raptured and live in eternity forever worshiping him or 2) Don't accept Christ and die and burn in hell fire for all eternity. This wasn't a choice, this was a blatant demand, there wasn't any reasonable 3rd option, for e.g. 3) Live, Die, the end.
    Then there was the question of what made the bible more valid than other ancient religious books with authors who claimed to have visions from a god dictating how "everyone" should live, their diet, who they socialize with etc. Was it because my parents and their parents believed it, society & its legislators accepted it and no one bothered to question it? Is it because it is the "Gospel Truth"? How can the Bible be a judge of the Bible??
    So with all of these questions, I can no longer "Trust in the Lord with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding" and "ignore and conform" even though this would satisfy my family, my wife and my society because I can feel my frustration growing everytime I'm gently forced to affirm my "Christianity". I never "chose" to be a Christian...but I chose to be a free thinker

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  7. Thanks so much for sharing this 'Almost Free,'I enjoyed reading that account and I could identify with so many of your feelings there. Once you start to look at the bible closely, you realise that there isn't much love there. It's primarily about submission, worship and obedience. It's about fulfilling God's needs not ours. Why would God have needs? That is a mystery in itself,of course. In any case, it's hard to see how a being that cares about himself more than us could be considered all loving.

    Congratulations on going through the stages and becoming a free thinker. I don't have the same problem with labels as you do. I feel it is important when I am dealing with Christians to make it clear that I don't believe in God full-stop. It makes them pause, sometimes do a double take to think about why they believe and they have to realise that they can't just assume we all have faith. In my experience when you don't say you oppose their belief directly they see you as a kind of back slidden christian, or someone weak in faith at the moment in need of a booster.

    Anyway, don't feel pressured to wear any label you don't want to. I am just explaining why I choose mine. You can define yourself however you want. I also know that saying you are an atheist in the Caribbean can still have some negative social repercussions. What's most important is to keep thinking and I fully 'get' you when you say you didn't choose your Christianity but chose to become a free thinker.

    One of the greatest things I like about my position now is that is 'mine.' I can sit down and give my beliefs based on my own reasoning without having to refer to any books, holy writings or clergy. I can also change my mind if I encounter convincing arguments that go against what I thought. It's truly a beautiful thing. Best of luck on your continued journey.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your reply, that was the first time I ever wrote about how I felt so I guess I got a bit emo on you guys lol...its great to read your blogs, a welcome change to the religious rhetoric that bombards us constantly here in Barbados. I guess my reluctance to embrace the word atheist is grounded in the stigma we've attached to it here, where Christians have turned it into the "religion of atheism" and lumped its "followers" with all the other groups they love to hate. However I've come to understand that atheism is just a word to signify disbelief and does not follow any doctrines and impose limitations on ppl who choose to associate themselves with atheism. As you wrote in one of your blogs the word atheist would not even be necessary if not for religion...so basically I've come to accept that the label atheist is necessary to the promotion of free thought. I've not totally come out to ppl about my position, my parents think I'm semi-backsliden, I still go to church with my wife occasionally, and I read caribbean atheist facebook page daily without joining because I wonder if the damage will be worth it. But honestly though, sometimes while sitting in church and listening to their rantings I feel like standing up and yelling "WAKE UP"!! lol

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    2. I am so glad you were able to get things off your chest and thanks for your support and letting me know that you appreciate the blogs. Knowing that it is helping in some way in counteracting the constant bombardment of religion is what gives me the encouragement to continue doing this, I definitely know how it can be in Barbados.

      I am also glad you are reading the Caribbean Atheists Facebook page. It's good to know that is helping also. Recently there was a discussion about the possibility of making the group closed. I argued that it was important to have the forum open so that people who were non believers but not comfortable in joining could still read the posts. Your comment has just reinforced that opinion for me.

      Please feel free to contact me anytime either through this forum or personal message if you feel the need to discuss anything or vent. I know from experience that the walk from faith can be a lonely one.There are many things you have to weigh up before deciding to come out and state publicly that you don't believe. I am sure you will know when it is the right time.

      I was lucky while I was in Barbados not to attend a church with that much ranting. But I do understand the urge to tell people to WAKE UP!

      Hang in there and best of luck to you.

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